How the Wild West was spun

The Wild West was a bountiful paradise tamed by swaggering patriots who did their talking at the point of a gun. That, at least, is the Hollywood version of events. Yet, as Karen Jones explains, the truth of frontier life was very different from the gilded myth – and it rarely had a happy ending

A still from the set of 'Westward the Women', directed by William A Wellman. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Guns fired the imagination but they didn’t win the West

If anywhere was ruled by the gun in the popular imagination, it was the frontier West. Tales of outlaws striding down dusty streets, dispatching rivals with a shot from a holstered pistol, animates western legend. And, certainly, there is some truth to that image.

The West attracted – with its promise of land and mineral wealth – a fair share of drifters. Guns were easy to come across, and widely used. In their early days, rowdy cattle towns such as Dodge City, Tombstone and Ellsworth were violent places where the likes of the Dalton Gang, Jesse James and Billy the Kid settled scores with a bullet. Travellers on the Oregon Trail (an emigrant route running from modern-day Kansas to Oregon) were advised by Lansford Hastings’ The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California (1845) to pack firearms along with flour, bacon, coffee and other sundries in their covered wagons.

In the second half of the century, innovations such as revolvers and breech-loading rifles settled so many scores that Winchester’s famous 1873 rifle became known as ‘the gun that won the West’.

Yet this reputation for violence has been exaggerated. Civic leaders soon employed marshals to patrol their towns and imposed gun ordinances and regulations against public disorder. Ogallala, Nebraska, known as the ‘Gomorrah of the Cattle Trail’, recorded only six killings during its halcyon years as a cattle town (1875–84). Wyatt Earp spent most of his time as Tombstone’s lawman in the early 1880s putting out chimney fires and rounding up stray hogs.

To find out how the West really got wild, we need to look at dime novels, ‘Wild West’ shows and other publications that sold the mythic frontier to an eager audience seeking escapism, glamour and gunplay.

Wyatt Earp earned his status as righteous lawman in large part due to Stuart Lake’s effusive biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall (1931) as well as the film Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957). Meanwhile, Dodge City relocated and revamped its ‘Boot Hill’ cemetery (well used in 1876–78 but mothballed thereafter) as a tourist lure in 1930 complete with imitation tombstones and ‘gallows’ cottonwood tree. With the frontier closed and the West ‘won’, the gun became good for business.

Malnourished, over-worked, under-paid… the cowboys you don’t see in the films

The Wild West would be a very different place in the public consciousness without John Wayne. The star of more than 80 westerns, he was the archetypal cowboy hero: the laconic, stetson-sporting stranger riding in to save maidens from whooping Indians.

The cowboy was, undeniably, one of the distinctive features of westward expansion. Would-be ranchers and cowhands flocked to the western plains seeking a beef bonanza. Ranches such as the famous XIT of Texas ran thousands of heads of cattle on the prairies in an industry dominated by the round-up and the long drive to market.

The cattle kingdom channelled the entrepreneurial spirit of the West and its associations with freedom and individualism.

But this was not the whole story. For the average cowpoke, life on the range was far from the romantic image cultivated by literature and film. Cowboys were, for the most part, itinerant labourers under the control of the ranch boss, working 14-hour days for little pay. Most only worked for a season.

It was true that many developed a proclivity for drinking coffee, eating beans and carousing in saloons, but cowboys were often malnourished, living a lonesome existence. And many were far from the blue-eyed American boys of legend. They numbered Mexicans, Britons and American Indians. One in seven was African-American.

By the 1880s, the invention of barbed wire, a series of harsh winters and environmental degradation due to over-stocking effectively ended the cattle kingdom. The cowboy, however, was not consigned to history but catapulted to fame in an illustrious ‘after-life’ as an all-American masculine hero.

The cowboy ‘brand’ sold all manner of products from cologne to cigarettes. It also sold presidents: Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and most recently, George W Bush all rode the cowboy mantle to the White House.

Land was free – but so were wildfires, pests and soul-crushing loneliness

One of the principal lures for settlers heading to the frontier in the 19th century was land. The American West was seen as an agricultural paradise that would deliver abundant crops and prosperity. The Homestead Act (1862) permitted heads of households (including women, immigrants and former slaves) to claim a 160-acre plot of land as long as they erected a dwelling and “improved” it over a five-year period.

The promise of ‘free land’ enticed farmers in New England struggling with exhausted soil, factory workers in the industrial cities of the east, and refugees from Europe seeking a new start.

Designed to make a nation of virtuous farmers after the Jeffersonian ideal – which envisaged America as an agrarian republic – the homesteading boom advanced the settlement of the West considerably. ‘Sod busters’ arrived in their thousands, displacing bison and American Indians, cattle and cowboys. The federal government distributed 2 million plots under the act, encompassing some 270 million acres across 30 states.

Homesteading offered “land for the landless” but was seldom an easy business.  Only 40 per cent of applicants satisfied the terms of the act to successfully claim a land patent, while the poorest did not have the resources to up sticks and move west.

In drier areas of the Great Plains, allotments weren’t large enough to be sustainable. Corruption was rife as individuals took advantage of inexact legal wording to build sheds on their land in lieu of dwellings, and speculators bought plots to control water rights and mineral claims.

Those who farmed the land suffered the exigencies of market prices, lack of water, inclement weather, wildfires, pests and the drudgery of loneliness. The diary of one female homesteader records its author pondering whether to kill a chicken for the pot or spare it as her only companion.

The harsh reality of homesteading contributed to the story of homesteading – one of boom and bust, hardship, mobility and community – as played out in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie (1935) or Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913).

Lewis and Clark blazed a trail into the interior, but did they find what they were looking for?

When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked on an expedition into the American interior in 1804, little was known of what lies to the west of the Mississippi river. Spanish, British and Russian traders had explored the Pacific coast but rumours persisted of mountains of salt, prehistoric creatures and blue-eyed American Indians who spoke Welsh.

Having purchased Louisiana Territory from the French in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson was keen to acquire geographical knowledge on the West and to cement US territorial claims. So he dispatched Lewis (his private secretary) and Clark (who had served with Lewis in the US Army) to explore the headwaters of the Missouri river, with the aim of discerning a navigable water route across the continent – in other words, to find the fabled North-West Passage.

They travelled 8,000 miles over more than two years, during which time they discovered 300 new species of plants and animals, encountered 50 American Indian tribes and returned successfully. That they did so is due, in no small part, to Sacagawea, wife of a French trapper, who guided them across the Rocky Mountains.

Jefferson received skins and samples, maps and notes and even a live prairie dog but no news of a water route to the Pacific. In their prime objective, Lewis and Clark failed. Some might argue they did not discover anything that American Indians or British fur traders had not already seen. When settlers went west in the 1840s, they followed trails established not by Lewis and Clark but by the trappers who came after them.

So why are Lewis and Clark remembered so fondly? As the first Americans to ‘go west’, their achievement was to fire the national imagination. They set the stage for a century of nation-building. According to historian Bernard de Voto, the expedition turned the nation’s eyes westward, and few were more delighted with what they saw than the legion of fur trappers who followed in their footsteps.

Lewis and Clark have now been reinvented as sensitive cultural  brokers and ‘original’ outdoors junkies. They may not have found the North-West Passage, but historical re-enactments and exhibits, not to mention all manner of branded goods – from travel pillows to cookbooks – confirm their canonical position among American explorers.

Gold delivered glittering returns – for a lucky few

When gold was discovered in January 1848 in tailrace water at John Sutter’s sawmill on the American River, California, thousands headed for the hills in pursuit of riches.

Accounts told of the desertion of San Francisco, even ghostly ships abandoned in the harbour, after entrepreneur Sam Brannan ran through city streets grasping a small bottle of gold dust and exclaiming: “Gold! Gold! Gold on the American River.”

Within two months, 4,000 people were prospecting in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Some did strike it lucky, finding glistening nuggets in riverbeds that were easily accessible by mining with pan, pick and shovel. Tales were spun of grizzled prospectors with golden beards and bathtubs glinting with ore in the ramshackle mining towns that sprang up with enticing names such as Hangtown and Rich Bar. These were rough and ready places, culturally diverse and dominated by men – who typically outnumbered women 10 to 1.

A demographic event of global proportions, the California Gold Rush lured ‘49ers from Cornwall to China, the Sandwich Islands to South Africa. By 1850, the population of non-native Californians had risen to 250,000, duly facilitating the granting of statehood.

In the span of five years, the California Gold Rush amassed a mineral value of $16bn in today’s money. For many, however, the promise of the ‘Golden State’ was illusory. With surface gold largely gone by the early 1850s, mining became a corporate venture dominated by hydraulic technology (high-pressure jets that blasted away at hillsides, causing significant environmental damage in the process). The lone prospector of folklore became a waged labourer working in extreme heat and dangerous conditions.

Racial conflict proved a common feature of the camps, with Chinese miners (as well as American Indians and Mexicans) singled out for attack in the shape of anti-foreign taxes and mob violence. The cost of living was high – in San Francisco a loaf of bread was 75 cents, compared to 5 in New York – and many Argonauts either went home or moved on to try their luck in other mineral rushes. As Mark Twain noted in his western travelogue Roughing It (1872), an attack of the ‘gold fever’ was a serious affliction and one that often came with disappointment. As the satirist concluded: “All that glitters is not gold.”

The hard-drinking prostitute behind the ‘heroine of the plains’

The life and adventures of Calamity Jane, pistol-packing ‘wild woman’ of the American West, offers a perfect example of the frontier as a landscape of folklore and fable where history, legend and story merged seamlessly together. Many will associate the name with the star of Doris Day’s rambunctious 1953 musical, where a fresh-faced ‘Calam’ wowed Deadwood with tales of saving the Deadwood Stage and bantered in jocular fashion with Howard Keel’s Bill Hickok. What is less well known, however, is that Calamity Jane was a historical character and one scarcely recognisable from Doris Day’s portrayal.

Martha Jane Cannary was born in 1852 and migrated to Virginia City, Montana during the mineral boom of the 1860s. Details of her early life remain sketchy but we know she was orphaned young and drifted between forts and mining camps working as a freighter, dance hall girl, prostitute, cook and laundress.

As a camp follower with the army during the 1870s, Cannary reputedly earned the moniker ‘Calamity Jane’ by saving an officer from Indian attack, although this account is quite possibly apocryphal. Indeed, as one commentator noted, the more we learn about Calamity Jane, the less we actually know.

A tall, muscular woman with a proclivity for dressing in men’s clothes, shooting and drinking whisky, Calamity Jane cut a striking presence on the frontier. Although the needs of frontier subsistence often saw women take on new roles (Wyoming was the first territory to grant female suffrage in 1869), Cannary operated far beyond the boundaries of what was deemed normal female behaviour. So much so that she was soon emerging as something of a regional celebrity – portrayed as the buckskin-clad ‘wild woman’ in books such as HF McDanield’s The Coming Empire (1878), or starring opposite ‘Deadwood Dick’ in a series of dime novels from prolific pulp writer Edward Wheeler.

Calamity Jane capitalised on her fame by selling photographs of herself in Yellowstone National Park, treading the boards in Wild West shows and writing an autobiography (though she was illiterate).

In common with other architects of frontier mythology such as ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, Cannary understood the power of storytelling and of the American West as an imagined landscape. As ‘Calamity Jane, heroine of the plains’, she regaled audiences with tales of scouting with Custer, saving the Deadwood Stage and apprehending Wild Bill Hickok’s killer after his fateful poker game – all of which were fictitious.

Cannary died in 1903 but a legion of writers and filmmakers carried her legend forth into the 20th century. In the process, the historical realities of a migrant woman struggling with alcoholism, the limits of gender heterodoxy and the unrelenting demands of making ends meet in a tough setting were subsumed before the romantic imagery of Calamity Jane, ‘wild woman’, lovable eccentric and symbol of the ‘wild and woolly west’ in all its glory.

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Karen Jones is senior lecturer in American and environmental history at the University of Kent with research interests in the 19th century, frontiers of empire and encounters with the natural world. She is co-author of The American West: Competing Visions (Edinburgh University Press, 2009)